Can You Slay the Demons of Overwork?
Mike Baker always wanted to run his own business. Growing up in northwest Arkansas, in the shadow of Wal-Mart and of Tyson Foods, he adopted a pretty bleak view of living his life as somebody else’s employee. “I just knew that they would never pay you enough to get ahead,” he recalls. “It wouldn’t be in their interests.”
Even so, Baker hadn’t yet made his breakaway when he was already in his midthirties. His first career had already run its course: a 13-year tour of duty in the U.S. Army, including a successful run as an Oklahoma-based recruiter. That career ended when he quit in the early 1990s, rather than accept a transfer to Korea. Afterward, with only a high-school education, he bounced around in various jobs and ended up working on the loading dock at a Levi Strauss denim plant in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was sweaty, repetitive work that paid $9.75 an hour, without even the pretense of a career track.
Eager to try something else, Baker began listing oddities for sale on eBay, the online auction service. He fiddled with eBay for a couple of hours before work each day; he checked his listings the moment he got home. Before long, he realized that this might be his big chance. A box of 1,000 miscellaneous mass-produced photos and posters, which he had acquired for less than $100, turned out to be a gold mine when the pictures were listed one at a time on eBay. People across the United States bid as much as $65 apiece for individual prints. When Levi Strauss closed its denim plant in late 1997, Baker instantly started a new career as a full-time seller on eBay.
For the first few months, everything clicked perfectly. Baker quickly became a clearinghouse, finding dealers who were eager to sell him boxes of Michael Jordan posters, Stevie Ray Vaughan pictures or, best of all, art prints. Then he resold them, one at a time, on eBay. Buyers paid double or triple — or even more — than what the items had cost Baker. Yet they felt that they were getting a good deal.
As Baker’s sales volume soared, something jarring happened. What had started as a pleasant hobby became an exhausting collection of four or five jobs all rolled into one. Each day began with marketing and sales at 6 AM, as Baker started typing his latest “for sale” listings and then posting 100 or more of them on the Internet. At 10:30 AM, he collected the daily mail and turned into the finance department, sorting through dozens of small checks and making sure that he knew what each customer expected to get. There was no time for lunch: By the time the checks were processed, he needed to head into a large, insulated shed behind his house in Springdale, Arkansas and become the shipping department. There, he darted back and forth among vast rows of shelves, looking for everything from Monet or Van Gogh prints to sassy pictures of dogs playing poker and cats dressed up as sushi chefs. Each time that he found the right print, he rolled it up, slipped it into a narrow packing tube, and pasted on an address label. Just before 5 PM, he would head to the post office to mail the day’s output.
Dinner was a blur, hastily gulped down with his wife and four children, before Baker headed back to his computer to become the customer-service department. Each evening, he dashed off dozens of emails, trying to straighten out lost shipments or to answer detailed queries about his wares. He unfailingly answered every stranger’s email, partly out of politeness — and partly out of a desire to offer the best customer service, and as a result, have one of the best feedback ratings on eBay.
By early 1999, more than 5,000 customers had posted positive comments about Baker on eBay’s site. It earned him a coveted red star on his eBay biography page, plus the intoxicating feeling that every day, more people across the United States publicly said that Mike Baker was a good merchant. Still, in his own household, he wasn’t a hero anymore.
“I was up until 1 AM every night, seven nights a week,” Baker recalls. “I was getting really stressed out. My kids were telling me to slow down. They kept saying, ‘Dad, we never see you. You’re at that computer all the time.'” His 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, wanted a horse. His 16-year-old son, Mitchell, wanted to see his dad at high-school football games. His wife, Sharon, wanted a family vacation, even if it just meant driving to Oklahoma City for a few days. Everything else in his life was being put on hold so that he could keep growing his eBay business.
Finally, Baker realized he was at the breaking point. In the summer of 1999, he hired his mother and father, both retired, to help each weekday from 10 AM to 2 PM. His mother, Earlene, took charge of processing incoming checks. His father, Delbert, a one-time chicken-farm owner, helped operate the shipping room. Soon they were joined by Baker’s oldest son, 21-year-old Michael, and by Michael’s friend, Jason Norton. By year’s end, Baker had five relatives or family friends on the payroll, all at $12 an hour. He was nervous at first about the extra expenses, but soon realized that his earnings could support the costs — while the added peace of mind would be invaluable.
Late in 1999, Mike and Sharon Baker took their first four-day weekend since he started his eBay business, driving several of their children to amusement parks in Texas and Oklahoma. The trip cost him several thousand dollars in lost sales, but it was worth it. He moved to a bigger home on the edge of Springdale, with a yard so big that he finally could buy Amanda the horse that she wanted. He didn’t make it to all of his son’s away games, but at home football games, he became a regular in the stands.
In his day-to-day routine too, Baker made more room for his family — no matter what beckoned at work. He made a rule that any customer emails that weren’t answered by 11:30 PM could wait until the next day. When his daughters, Amanda and Sherita, complained that the school bus took forever to get them home, he created a 3:30 PM break so he could pick them up from school. On the drive home, his daughters could talk about their world, and eBay wouldn’t be mentioned.
Like many people trying to walk away from addictive habits, Baker still feels the urge to pour more energy into his business, now known as Art Prints Inc. He wants to widen his customer base with what he calls a “$10 million art-print giveaway,” which might require him to hire as many as 15 temporary workers to help handle all the associated packing and shipping. He is looking at parcels of land that could give him a 7,000-square-foot warehouse — far bigger than the converted three-car garage that he uses today.
Every time that he sketches out a new dream, though, his wife asks him: “How much control are you willing to give up?” If his business gets much bigger, she says, he won’t be choosing what’s for sale or corresponding with his customers. All that will be delegated, and it will feel less like his business. Already, he confides, “we’re paying more in taxes than I ever thought we’d be earning in a year.” Art Prints Inc. sells as many as 500 items a day, most at $6 apiece or more. Even after expenses, healthy profit margins remain.
In September, Baker’s new priorities faced their toughest test yet. One of his uncles was hospitalized with advanced leukemia. Death was imminent, and various relatives came to stay at his house. For more than a week, his business operated at barely 10% of its usual clip so that Baker could have more time with his family.
Right about that time, Baker’s eBay feedback rating topped 10,000, entitling him to a yellow shooting star next to his name. At other homes, that might have been worth celebrating, but the Bakers let it slip by almost unnoticed. The steady series of hospital visits left everyone drained. And when his uncle died on September 13, Baker suddenly had a new responsibility. Family members asked him to give the eulogy at the funeral a few days later.
“I felt nervous about it at first,” Baker recalls. “I don’t have much experience with public speaking. But they told me just to talk from the heart.” He got up in church and shared some of his favorite memories of Uncle Joe: listening to him sing “Unchained Melody” on the porch, hearing stories about his deer-hunting trips to Colorado. “I don’t think he ever killed anything,” Baker said with a wry smile. “He just used to like to go and sit in the woods, looking at the trees. He said that it was the most beautiful country he’d ever seen.”
After the service, his late-uncle’s son came up to Baker and thanked him for saying all the right things. The two men hadn’t spoken in a while; the son had moved north to Ohio and didn’t get back to Arkansas much. But at that moment, Baker felt that his extended family was as close as it had been in a long time.
Can You Stay on Track by Yourself?
As hard as it is for surgeons, Internet entrepreneurs, and other free agents to get on the right track, at least they can do a lot by themselves to redefine their jobs. They aren’t managers or employees in a large organization. The pressures in their lives come mostly from themselves, from their craft, or from their customers. They needn’t answer to bosses or to dozens of colleagues who work so closely together on big projects that they inevitably create (and solve) problems for one another.
It’s a different story inside a bigger enterprise. There, someone who single-handedly tries to rewrite the rules runs the risk of being seen either as a prima donna or as a slacker who just isn’t committed to being a top-tier producer. Yet if you become reliant on the approval of others — saying, “I’m not successful until every colleague and every client says I’m doing great work” — then you will collapse exhausted and will still leave someone muttering that you didn’t do enough.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, the management consultants at Bain & Co. have tried to break out of that trap, particularly in Bain’s San Francisco office. They have shaken up a strict hierarchy, creating more collegial teams so that one person needn’t shoulder round-the-clock responsibilities to make sure that things get done right. They have created an in-house culture where consultants can strive for work-life balance without being seen as lazy. And they have started talking with clients about saner ways to get projects done, instead of treating every assignment as a manic cross-country odyssey.
The goal: “We wanted to make this a great place to work,” says Tom Tierney, who was head of Bain’s San Francisco office in the late 1980s. He encouraged even his best young consultants to take time off if they felt weary or to work part-time for a while if doing so made it easier for them to devote time to their children. That was a jarring message at first, he concedes. “We’ve always recruited very high-voltage MBAs, and they’re intensely competitive” he says. “But the only competition should be with themselves. And if people can have a fuller life by going part-time for a while, that creates a new model for others to follow.”
That transformation is best seen in two of Tierney’s protégés: John Donahoe and Lisa Walsh. Both joined Bain in the early 1980s and became two of the firm’s top-performing partners. In the process, though, they broke away from the consulting industry’s longtime habit of success at all costs — and found a wiser pace instead.
Donahoe’s turning point came early, barely a year out of college, when he was working in Bain’s Boston office and sharing a romantic dinner near the downtown waterfront with his fiancée, Eileen Chamberlain. He had started to boast about his bright prospects at the firm — but the more he talked, the warier his fiancée grew. A theology student at Harvard, she could glimpse the dark side of a consultant’s life: too much travel, too many late evenings, and too little time to make deep, personal connections with anyone.
Was that what he wanted? she asked. No, Donahoe insisted. Absolutely not. He pulled out a pen and fumbled in his wallet for a piece of paper. All he could find on that autumn day in 1983 was a Shawmut Bank teller’s receipt. It would have to do. On the back of the receipt, he wrote: “I will not live the life of a management consultant.” He signed it with a flourish and gave it to her.
Five years later, it was time to make good on that promise. Donahoe and Chamberlain had married and were living in San Francisco with two small children. He was still at Bain; she had just graduated from Stanford Law School and was being offered a clerkship with a renowned federal judge. They agreed that it was a great career opportunity for her. But the job started at 7:30 AM each day. If she took it, who would wake up the children and get them started?
A few weeks later, Donahoe walked into Tierney’s office and said: “I’d like to work part-time for a year.” He would spend the early morning with his children and start work at 9:30 AM or so. He would travel as little as possible. And he would take a pay cut. A decade earlier, only a lunatic would have made such a proposal. But Tierney gambled that Donahoe could make it work and could be both a better father and an effective consultant.
For the next year, Donahoe split his mornings between oatmeal and org charts. It was much the same juggling act that any working mother endures. But at Bain it was a rarity to see male consultants choose that path, especially one who was seen as a rising star. With the firm supporting his move, Donahoe was able to show colleagues and clients that while his arrangement was unusual, it wasn’t unnavigable.
Confined to the San Francisco area, Donahoe got lucky. He couldn’t chase clients with operations across the United States, so he began working very closely with a local financial-services company in the midst of a major strategic overhaul. It became one of Bain’s most productive projects that year. So when colleagues looked around, they didn’t notice Donahoe was coming in late. They noticed he was getting a lot done.
“John never felt as if he was putting his career at risk that year,” his wife recalls. “Not being able to travel was stressful for him. But he was realistic about what he could and couldn’t do. Besides, he developed his own routine to take care of our boys, and that was great to see.”
Some Bain colleagues, in fact, suspect that the year of living domestically helped Donahoe develop a more savvy management style. He couldn’t do everything himself, so he became especially adept at sharing authority and at helping colleagues grow into bigger jobs. That team-building ethic paid off in 1992, when Tierney left the top San Francisco job to become Bain’s worldwide managing director — and Donahoe was picked to replace him.
“John didn’t come in with his own prescriptive plan,” fellow Bain partner Lisa Walsh recalls. “Instead, he’d tap into individual partners’ aspirations. Then he’d help us translate those into priorities and achievements. He’s a spectacular listener. At meetings with him, we’d end up doing 90% of the talking, and only at the end would we realize that this was on purpose.”
That deceptively gentle style unleashed a great deal of productive energy. During Donahoe’s six years in San Francisco, his office became one of the fastest-growing parts of Bain worldwide. Various partners in his office championed initiatives to raise Bain’s profile in industries ranging from computer technology to telecommunications to private equity. “I’m not the smartest person in the firm,” Donahoe explains. “We have several dozen partners who are far better consultants than I ever will be. It’s my job to make sure that everyone is working together effectively, and that everyone has the resources they need. That’s a role that comes naturally to me.”
As striking as Donahoe’s own progression may be, it is a story in isolation if no one else at Bain has been able to break away from the pack and still thrive. In recent years, partners in the consulting firm have been struggling to create a new vocabulary that pays tribute to anything other than a classic climb up the company ladder. They talk about the importance of “affiliation” and “lifelong learning.” They portray successful careers as those with the most options, rather than the most promotions. Such rhetoric is just a start though. The real test is how consultants end up living their lives.
For Lisa Walsh, the past 10 years have been a chance to be a top-flight partner at Bain and still find the time that she wants to spend with her children and her husband. She is one of the firm’s leading strategic thinkers, helping clients find winning moves in industries ranging from coffee to semiconductors. But her cleverest strategy may be the way that she manages both her teams and her time.
Take something as basic as overnight travel, for example. It’s a hallmark of her business, but it’s also a grating part of the routine as consultants enter their thirties and forties. Slyly, Walsh has cut her travel load down to about one night a week, partly by encouraging out-of-town clients to use conference calls or to visit her offices in San Francisco. “It’s a good way for them to have a quick off-site,” she explains, “and to be able to get away from their daily routine so they can focus on the big picture. It’s also a way that all of our consultants on a project — even the most junior ones — can meet a CEO and really get to know his or her perspective.”
Walsh also has made sure that clients don’t see her as the only person on a Bain team who is capable of fielding an urgent call. From initial meetings onward, she positions one or two of her team members as people who have the knowledge and the authority to make decisions too. That helps keep her work hours under control — without leaving clients feeling shortchanged. It also speeds the development of new consulting talent at Bain, which the firm cherishes.
The result: time to see her daughters’ activities; time for relaxing dinners with her husband, Richard, who is an attorney at Bank of America; and a reputation for reliable work with clients. “If Lisa were willing to move to Colorado, I’d hire her for a senior position,” says Bill McCallum, a longtime Walsh client and the CEO of Great West Life, in Englewood, Colorado. “She’s helped us evaluate some divestitures and also some new lines of business. I’ve never had a problem setting up a meeting with her, and if I didn’t know her as well as I do, I wouldn’t even know that she has a family.”
Over the past five or six years, a growing number of young Bain consultants are talking openly about work-life balance. Some are asking for time off to pursue personal interests; others want transfers to different cities so that they can be closer to loved ones or ailing parents. Walsh is leading a West Coast team that is setting policies on such matters and that constantly fields both personal and professional requests. She wants most of these candidates to contribute a year or two of reliable work first. If they are top performers, though, she tends to look leniently at such requests — even from young consultants who want time off to shoot a surfing video in Costa Rica or who want a part-time arrangement to see if they can make it in Hollywood as actors or actresses.
“We’ve felt for a while that it was the right thing to do,” Walsh explains, “but there was a time when we were concerned that it might just become an outplacement service. What we’ve been seeing, though, is that people do come back to the firm. In fact, often it’s our very best performers who make the most use of these programs.”
Her favorite example: John Donahoe. In 1997, he felt burned out by the daily demands of his job and was eager to spend more time with his two oldest sons, before they entered their teenage years. He began dropping hints that he might want to take three months off — an outright sabbatical. Colleagues agreed to fill in for him. So in 1998, he spent those months first seeing Europe as a tourist, and then going on weeklong, separate trips with his wife and his four children.
“It was the right time for repotting, and a great chance to bring our family closer together,” Donahoe says. It also turned out to be a savvy career move. When he returned to San Francisco, routine office management was humming along fine without him. There was time at last to think about where Bain’s next big expansion effort should be. Before long, Donahoe was championing a proposal by several young partners to create what became Bain Labs, an offshoot of the consulting firm that’s in unusually close contact with startups. That initiative helped raise his standing with partners around the globe.
In January 2000, Donahoe was picked to succeed Tierney as Bain’s worldwide managing director. Now he focuses not just on Bain’s opportunities and challenges in the United States but also in international offices ranging from London to Singapore. When he took that promotion, Donahoe worried that the new job would undercut his time at home. “But it hasn’t been as big a change as I thought,” his wife, Eileen, says. I don’t pull him into all the day-to-day issues, but I keep him honest about being a good parent. These things we can’t hand over to anyone else.”
Besides, she adds, if priorities are ever in doubt, it just takes a moment to fish out his long-ago promise on the Shawmut Bank slip. “I still keep it inside my purse,” she says. “And I’ve brought it out many times over the years.”
George Anders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor based in Silicon Valley. You can learn more about Dot Richardson (www.drshortstop.com) and Mike Baker (www.artprintsinc.com) on the Web. Contact Lisa Walsh (email@example.com) or John Donahoe (firstname.lastname@example.org) by email.